Thousands of Americans are taking to the streets to protest about racism and most are doing so for the first time in their lives. The question is why the tragedy of George Floyd struck such a chord ? He is not the first African American who was brutally murdered by a police officer. Hundreds of African Americans have faced such brutality over the decades. In some cases, it got the attention of mainstream media and political leadership but this time it is different and more sustained. Protest rallies have taken place all across America and even outside America.
America has a bitter history going back more than 230 years of discrimination against African Americans.
The present crises therefore needs to be seen in the historical context. Till the civil war in 1865, this discrimination was legal meaning slavery was a justified act in America. When Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of United States, abolished slavery, it was resisted by the southern states and that led to the American civil war between 1861 to 1865. . Several Southern States decided to challenge the decision which resulted in a long battle between the southern states seeking to accede from United States. By 1865, Abraham Lincoln and his forces won the war that finally ended slavery for Black Americans – but only legally. Much worse was to happen in the next 150 years or so.
Actually the seeds of hatred were sown in 1787 when the United States constitution was adopted in the assembly in Philadelphia. It was a fantastic document by the likes of Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and many others – all intellectually powerful people. There was only one problem in that constitution – slavery was constitutionally permitted for certain southern states. It started with the same spirit of Declaration of Independence ‘All men are created equal’ but blacks in some states will be counted 3/5th of the white population. A serious fault line was created in an otherwise powerful document. This fault keeps erupting periodically even after 233 years and even after electing a black president in 2008. In 1857, a black (negroes as they were called) sued for his freedom. The final verdict of the Supreme Court was – ‘Mr Scott cannot sue for his freedom because he is not a person but a property’. Just one example of how bad the situation was.
After abolishing slavery through the 13th amendment, there were 2 other historical amendments- 14th giving right of citizenship to blacks and 15th giving right of vote. Although almost all legal impediments were removed, it could never be implemented in spirit because elements belonging to white racist community could not accept Blacks to enjoy equal status.
The racial hatred continued with varying degrees. Over the decades, issues of poor treatment of the blacks have taken place on a regular basis. The police brutality against black Americans is a known fact. Each time any issue of discrimination against black American took place, there were protests or few debates on electronic media or few articles in mainstream newspapers. The American administration and the people as such had accepted this as a norm which never got the attention that it deserved.
All that changed following the brutal murder of George Floyd in last week of May. George Floyd made last minute effort begging for his life clearly saying – I can’t breath but the white police officer would not be bothered. The other police officers present there watched George Floyd dying in front of their eyes but none bothered to intervene and save his life. It was as brutal as it could get.
Great American Presidents starting with Abraham Lincoln to John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and of course Barack Obama (all democrats except Lincoln) worked tirelessly to change the American landscape in order to bring equality – not just in the laws but more important from a mindset standpoint.
But all the gains were literally wiped out with the emergence of Donald Trump. Having no other credential in his favour and only a murky past, he invoked the issue of white supremacy. He fanned the flames of racial hatred knowing fully well that this would enable him to reach out to mainstream white America. Surprising everyone, he won a narrow victory against Hilary Clinton (in fact Clinton won more popular votes but based on the American electoral college system, Trump became the President).
As the demonstrations over the death of George Floyd spread to all parts of America and indeed outside America, there was general expectation that President Trump will act with extreme care and show leadership qualities. Whatever his views before elections 2016, he is now the President representing all segments of the American society. He completely misread the sentiments allowing the outrage and mayhem to spread across America. One of his first reactions following the brutal murder, was issuing a tweet saying ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’. All through the month, he has failed to reach out to average American who is deeply hurt. In most cases President Trump has urged Governors especially those from the Democratic Party to come down harshly against demonstrators.
This movement is now more effective and lethal compared to any uprising from the Black American community in the last 200 years – evoking sentiments more than we witnessed during the leadership of Martin Luther King. It’s even more significant due to the participation of large segment of the white Americans. So it’s not just confined to the Black Americans who obviously are in the lead.
Within the Trump administration, saner voices have been calling for the President to act with care and reach out to Black America.
The Presidential elections are due in November this year. The re election of President Trump will surely depend on how he handles this movement and his handling of the corona issue. In addition, Americans will also be electing Governors and Congress representatives at the same time. This movement called the ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ will therefore continue to survive and will be a dominant issue in the entire electoral process. Whether America finally embraces the Black American community or not will only be known in the next few months but surely we all hope that this paves the way for a more tolerant American society.
The writer is former Governor of Sindh and has also served as Chairman of privatisation Commission with status of State Minister from 2013 to 2017 Email: mo. Zubair 2020 @ gmail.com